CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts— When Shelane Etchison was first embedded in the 75th Ranger Regiment, a few male soldiers understood and befriended her. But more often than not, she was given a cold reception as one of the first women cast into a combat role.
“A lot of people were very skeptical about how women … would handle these units,” Etchison, a former Special Operations soldier, told Fox News. “There was a lot more scrutiny and skepticism about how we were going to perform.”
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Etchison was a member of the first Cultural Support Team, a 20-strong combat force that was attached to the 75th Ranger Regiment in 2011. She became one of the first women in US history to fight alongside men on the front lines in front of the Department of Defense, which lifted a ban on women fighting in 2015.
“It hasn’t been an easy road,” Etchison said. “It took a while to change some hearts and minds within our own special forces.”
During the Afghan war, special forces hunted high-profile Taliban and al-Qaeda targets. But the all-male teams were barred from speaking to women and children due to cultural norms, causing the US and Afghan military to lose vital information.
As a result, the all-female Cultural Support Team was formed. The women soon proved themselves, winning over not only the Rangers, in which Etchison was embedded, but also top executives in the Pentagon.
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“There was such a change in attitude,” Etchison told Fox News, noting that some of the men began to question why women weren’t allowed to attend ranger school. “As I left, one of the rangers gave me his badge and said, ‘That would be really cool if you were a ranger one day.'”
The initial success of the Cultural Support Team prompted Special Operations Forces to train a covert unit of Afghan women soldiers that was eventually dubbed the Female Tactical Platoon program, Etchison said. The military unit performed a similar service to the Cultural Support Team, gathering information by searching and interviewing women during high-risk night raids.
Together, the teams advanced the needle for women in combat.
“A lot of what we’ve proven that we can do there played a big part in the Department of Defense eventually lifting the ban on women fighting,” Etchison said. “The same goes for these Afghan women who are proving themselves there with their male Afghan counterparts on the battlefield.”
The women of both programs trained together, became friends while proving the importance of their unprecedented role. Etchison stressed the additional danger Afghan women face.
“The roles were essentially the same,” Etchison said. “However, what was different was the level of courage that I believe it takes to actually put your hand up and do this job.”
Afghan men who supported the US military or played any role in the country’s government were already among the Taliban’s main targets. But faced with the brutal regime’s repression of women, which even forbids them to travel or receive training unaccompanied by a male, the members of the Female Tactical Platoon had an even greater target.
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“There’s just a lot more risk when they agree to come together and do this job,” Etchison said. “A job way ahead of what Afghan women are doing in society, let alone the military and let alone the highest ranks in their military.”
“I want these stories to be passed on to the next generation of service women,” Etchison said. “Hopefully they’ll be inspired by that.”
To hear more from Etchison on the advancement of women in military combat roles, click here.